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Global Migration

We Are Travelers

By Yani Yoo

Introducing a biblical reflection monthly series on global migration.

"The land is mine. You are guests in my land. Everything the land produces is mine, too," God said to the Israelites (Lev. 25:23). This writing is the work of the biblical writers in the priestly tradition and came out of the people’s experience of exile. When we consider the testimony of the text in the context of exile, the verse takes on a broader meaning for us.

The Israelite exiles had experiences of living in a foreign empire and had strong beliefs about the land. They attested that the land of the empire and any land on which they were living belonged to God. In other words, all people in the world and even the most commanding empire are but travelers, sojourners, and migrants.

Growing up in Korea, I learned and understood that Korea was mostly a mono-ethnic, monocultural country. In the late 1980's I traveled to New York City to study theology. In New York, I witnessed a whole spectrum of diverse peoples, different races and ethnic groups. It was astonishing to see so much diversity in one city.

While living in New York, I was an undocumented worker for a short while. Before my student visa expired, I was to return to Korea and renew my visa, but did not have the money to do so. Although compromising, I worked part time outside my school’s establishment, and this may have been a violation of my visa terms.

But my experience was worthy because of the people I met who worked hard to ensure my safety—those who helped fight against racism, sexism, and other discriminations along my path. I was saturated with kindness and hospitality from the people at the church I belonged to and the school I went to. It would not be an overstatement to say that as a human being, especially as a woman, I was given more equitable opportunities and felt more valued in the United States than in my own country, South Korea. I earned my Ph.D., became an ordained minister and served local churches in the United States. All these successes would not have been possible if I had stayed in Korea.

When I returned to Korea about 10 years ago, I realized that Korea had become a very different country. It had grown in prosperity and multiculturalism. Since the 1990’s, Korea has been receiving migrant workers and marriage migrants (women who travel to marry a South Korean man, sight unseen, to obtain a visa and access to a better life), many of whom migrate from Asian countries, especially from the Philippines.

I regret to say that Korea does not treat these migrants equitably. While there are many in receiving countries who welcome and accept foreigners, offering equal opportunities, within the same boundaries there are those who oppose, those who discriminate against, migrants. Presently, migrant workers are not permitted to stay in Korea for more than five years. According to studies, approximately 85 percent of them wish to stay even after their visas expire. Furthermore, green cards and eligibility for citizenship are not arranged for migrants and their families regardless of their length of stay in Korea.

My experience living in the United States as a foreigner and an undocumented worker helped me see the disparity in systemic issues of migration. Through my concern and developing ability to critically assess the Korean government's treatment of migrants, I shared with United Methodist Women’s related Scranton Women’s Leadership Center the vision of a mature multi-cultural Korean society. It will be a win-win game for all.

The biblical “priestly” authors convey a message of impermanence and transience, claiming God’s authority over our plots of land: "The land is mine. You are guests in my land." These words are for all people and governments. It is our job to teach the world that we are all guests, travelers, sojourners, and migrants. We humbly rely on the grace of the owner of the land, God, while we travel or sojourn.

Prayer: May God be with you as you spread this message to the world while we travel beside one another. Amen.

Last Updated: 04/06/2014

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